This entry is part 59 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV).
These words constitute the go-to text for Christians who wish to assert that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. It is also the go-to text for those who feel that Christianity condemns itself as abhorrent and intolerant by reason of the very exclusiveness of this saying.
But does does the text actually mean what most of its friends (and, indeed, most of its enemies) think it means?
Brian Mclaren thinks it does not, and his alternative interpretation may be found here. What follows is my attempt to summarise the main points of Mclaren’s exposition.
The first problem with the usual understanding of this text, according to Mclaren, is that people tend bring the wrong question to it. They ask: ‘Is Jesus the only way to get to heaven after we die?’ But what if Jesus was not actually addressing that question? What if Jesus was always concerned much more with proclaiming a good life here and now, than with teaching a way to escape hell hereafter? And what if his consistent goal was to expand, not diminish, the dimensions of who could be included in the kingdom of God?
In seeing how John 14:6 fits into this, we must pay close attention to its context.
Look back at John 13:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.” This statement – that Jesus is going somewhere, but his disciples cannot go there – forms a thread throughout the ensuing conversation. But where is Jesus going? It cannot be heaven, for otherwise he would be excluding even his disciples from going there too. No: he’s going to the cross. Then, having told them what they cannot do (share in his unique suffering and death), he tells what they must do (love one another, John 13:34f).
The exchange between Peter and Jesus (Jn 13:36-38) makes it almost certain that Jesus is not talking about going to heaven, but about suffering and death. To paraphrase: Peter asks, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will suffer for you to the point of death.” Jesus answered, “Someday you will follow me into suffering, but not now. Now you will deny me.” (Incidentally, this closely parallels Matthew 20:20, where the language of ‘drinking the cup that I drink’ is used instead of ‘going where I go.’)
No wonder that Jesus’ next words are those of reassurance:-
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
We should not assume that ‘my Father’s house’ = ‘heaven’. It is more likely a synonym for ‘the kingdom of God’, or ‘God’s family’ – the place where God is; the place where God’s will is done.
Nor should we assume that ‘I will come back’ returns to the Second Coming’. It is much more likely to refer to Jesus’ resurrection. Our Lord’s meaning would then be: “You have been with me constantly up until now. But now I am going where you cannot follow. But don’t worry: I will rejoin you and bring you to my Father’s house (or kingdom) so that we can be together for ever.
Jesus says to them: “You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas responds: “How can we possibly know the way, when we don’t even know where you’re going?” It’s clear that Thomas’ question has nothing to do with the future destiny of the unsaved, but is rather an admission: “Lord, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
It is into this uncertainty and confusion that Jesus speaks his famous words: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words: all you need is me. You don’t need a map, a compass, or a set of directions. You need me: I am the true and living way who leads you to the Father and his kingdom. It’s just like Jesus will pray in John 17:3 – “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (And all of this is a far cry from any questions about the destiny of unbelievers, or those who have never heard about Jesus.)
The disciples still don’t get it, and this time it’s Philip who speaks up. “Show us the Father,” he pleads. And it is in Jesus’ reply (and not in v6) we have the core of the entire passage: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
“If you want to know what God is like, look at me,” says Jesus. “Look at my life, my deeds, my character.”
And what has that character been? Mclaren replies:-
‘One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesus’ way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end.’
In their wooden-headedness, the disciples are just like us. They (and we) want facts, certainty, instruction manuals. But Jesus offers trust, relationship, himself. And then they (and we) find a whole new chapter opening up for us. They will find themselves empowered to do even greater works than they have seen him do so far (John 14:12-14). The same Spirit who has been with them (in Jesus) will from henceforth be in them (John 14:15-17). Then comes more reassurance to that anxious band of men (John 14:18-20).
[It is at this point, where Mclaren stops walking through the passage that a whole series of non sequiturs starts to flow:-]
Mclaren wonders if many of us just like those clueless disciples, with our pre-occupation about who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ of heaven (and perhaps even hoping that enough people are kept out). But, again, Jesus doesn’t provide that kind of information: he offers a relationship with himself. To such enquires he would no doubt respond as he once responded to Peter: “What is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22).
There are passages in the New Testament that help with the question, ‘What about those who have never heard about Jesus?’. These would include Romans 2:1-29, 5:12-21, 11:25-36. We might also study the place of the ‘righteous outsider’ in the Old Testament considering characters like Melchizedek, Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah, etc. Then there are passages such as Amos 9:7 and Acts 17:24-28. But John 14:6 is simply not relevant to the question.
‘The backdrop for any speculation is the awareness that God is exactly like Jesus in his perfect integration of compassion and justice, perfectly wise and completely dependable to make good judgments, and we (obviously!) are not. That’s where I think it best to leave things.’
Is Jesus the only way? It depends where you are trying to go. ‘If we want to abandon the earth as a lost cause and evacuate upward to heaven as soon as possible [what a caricature that is, Brian!], I suspect we’re going in a different direction than Jesus.’ His movement was not upwards, but downwards, as Paul put it so well in Philippians 2:5-11 [so we have incarnation, but no ascension!].
We have not been taught to pray: ‘May we go to heaven, where your will is done, unlike here on earth.’ No, our prayer is that God’s will might be done, here ‘on earth as in heaven’.
May we shift our direction so that we seek to move down with him, in the direction of incarnation not abandonment, in the direction of involvement and identification not elitism and escape, to go where he went for the reason he went, in love and service to the worst of sinners, sinners like you and me. Amen.
I appreciate the close attention that Mclaren gives to the passage itself. His argument certainly merits further thought and study.
His jump from exposition to application is almost entirely unwarranted.
He represents those with whom he disagrees almost entirely in terms of caricatures and crass generalisations.
His neglect of biblical teaching that does not support his line of thinking is inexcusable. (If, as Mclaren argues, the teaching of John 14:6 is more specific than is generally supposed, then we can find other teaching that is much broader – John 10:9; Acts 4:12, for example).
But the main problem with Mclaren’s reasoning is that it involves a massive non sequitur. Even if it is true that our Lord, when he talks about ‘the way’ is not talking about ‘the way to heaven’ but ‘the way to God’s kingdom’ (and I regard this as a possible, if unlikely, interpretation), it is still the case that Jesus regards himself as not only ‘the way’ (“I am the way”), but the only way (“No one comes to the Father, except by me”).
Sorry, Brian, but the text is just as stubbornly exclusive (and just as inclusive) as it was before you started work on it.